Retail, legal, medical and marketing are just a few of the industries represented in the Fort Benning Area Guide “Pay It Forward” Networking Group. Currently at nearly 90 members, the group is looking to grow its membership while continuing to bring the military and civilian communities closer.
“Anybody who lives in Columbus is connected to Fort Benning, if they’re a business owner, because their customers are going to be Soldiers and Army Families as well as civilian families,” said Amanda Brown, president of the group. “What the Fort Benning Area Guide as a whole is trying to do is bridge that community. A lot of people think Fort Benning is like a separate entity from Columbus, and it really isn’t. That’s basically the awareness we’re trying to bring.”
Brown, a Mary Kay beauty consultant married to a Fort Benning Soldier, said the networking group is a great way for military spouses who PCS to the area to connect with others and expand their business.
“We want true business-minded people,” she said. “There are other (networking) options for businesses but most of those options are pretty expensive. We wanted to develop something that was low cost for the small businesses who can’t afford to shell out hundreds and hundreds of dollars just to mingle with other businesses.”
What it isThe group meets at noon the second Wednesday of the month at Columbus State University’s Cunningham Center. Each meeting costs $10 and includes a catered lunch.
Attendance averages about 70, more than half of which are Family members or prior military, said Kim Olive, an Army mom who started the group.
“We love our military and are proud to have them in our group,” Olive said. “We feel we owe them so much for what they have done for our country, so it just makes sense to help them with their business in any way that we can.”
After lunch is served, the program includes a speaker from within the group who presents a topic relevant to small businesses.
“We have had meetings on customer service, marketing with Facebook, networking, building a strong relationship with your clients and etiquette and ethics on the web,” Olive said.
She said they also announce any events a member may have coming up, share nonprofit causes, offer cross-promotion opportunities and highlight members in mini-commercials.
Membership is open to all business owners with direct sales representatives limited to two per company, Brown said.
How it startedThe organization grew out of the Fort Benning Area Guide, a business owned and operated by Kim Olive. Olive, whose son is deployed to Afghanistan, created the Fort Benning Area Guide website and Facebook page as a way for individuals new to the area — often due to a PCS — to discover all the Valley has to offer. A networking group was a natural outlet of that, she said.
“I started the networking group because I had so many friends who own small businesses and heard complaints at how the bigger or more expensive groups did nothing for them but was really geared to help the bigger companies,” Olive said. “My goal was to help any small business that wanted to join.
“We have people who have moved here from another state and find themselves looking to join some type of networking group that can help them. The problem that they had in the past is that the other member-based networking groups were just too expensive. This group fits their needs.”
Olive announced the idea on her Facebook page and had more than 50 people attend the August meeting at a local restaurant.
“We quickly realized it was necessary to find a location that could hold the members,” Olive said. “It was a promise I made to myself and to the people we are helping that I would keep the cost of the networking group at a price that anyone could come and be a part of something big.”
Why it worksThe name of the group — “Pay It Forward” — is drawn from the concept of supporting others. It’s put in action at each meeting when members who choose to are paired together for the month. Until the next meeting, each partner promotes the other’s business, allowing them to reach an entirely different audience than they might have otherwise, Olive said.
“‘Pay It Forward’ is a way to place a marketing representative who can be an outsider looking in, helping ... with the marketing side and cross-networking,” said Donna Hall, vice president of the Fort Benning Area Guide, an Army brat and a frequent participant in the Pay It Forward program.
And it’s the most effective marketing tool the group provides, she said.
Members don’t need to participate in the program every month or even attend each monthly meeting, but getting involved is what will help grow their clientele.
“We have had people say they never had one lead from any of the other expensive groups that they had attended in the past, but they got several within one meeting of the networking group,” Olive said. “We give the members the vehicle to drive their business. It is up to them to promote their business and the networking group.”
Ultimately, it’s about making real connections, Brown, said.
“We think if you know someone on a personal level and know what they do, you’re more apt to refer that person to other people,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is build those relationships.”
For an example of how the networking group helps market members’ businesses, watch the video at www.fortbenningareaguide.com. Olive’s goal is to highlight each of the members in the 30-minute show at some point.
To attend a meeting, contact Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org. The next meeting will be Wednesday. They will also be hosting a vendor fair March 30-31 at The Front Porch of the South with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project.